I’ve been working off and on as an instructional designer for a number of years now, and had always assumed that what we call “e-learning” or “online learning” was a fairly recent product of the dot-com boom of the ‘90s. Not so.

Before offering proof of this, it might help to answer the question, “What is an instructional designer?” Essentially, an instructional designer analyzes the learning needs of a group of people (safety for construction workers, for example), compiles information related to closing that knowledge gap, writes the text that will appear onscreen, and details the audio and visual elements which, when produced, are then delivered as lessons or courses to the identified audience. That’s the job description in a nutshell.

I researched and wrote the following article for my employer, but also to satisfy my own curiosity. I hope you find it interesting.

Thanks for dropping by, and Happy New Year!


PLATO: The Dawn of Online Learning

The use of the computer as a means of delivering training and instruction came about as a result of two factors.

The first of these was the passage of America’s G.I. Bill in 1944. This legislation, which was intended to reintegrate soldiers returning home from the Second World War, offered low-interest loans for ex-servicemen to buy houses and start businesses. One of the provisions of the bill also provided them with a free post-secondary education. College and university enrollments soared, and institutes of higher learning buckled under the strain of this massive new student body.

The second factor that contributed to the development of computer-based training came about largely as a result of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. When the Soviets successfully launched the Sputnik I satellite in 1957, U.S. government investment in technology soared.

By the time the original G.I. Bill was ended in 1956, 7.8 million veterans had participated in an education or training program. The need for a more efficient means of providing instruction was evident. Fortunately for the University of Illinois, some of that government money found its way into their fledgling computer research lab. In 1952, engineers developed the Illinois Automatic Computer (or ILLIAC), the first computer built and owned entirely by a U.S. educational institution. It weighed over five tonnes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mathematicians and astronomers at the University of Illinois used the ILLIAC to calculate the orbit of the Sputnik I satellite within two days of its launch.

The ILLIAC system continued to evolve, and it was for this platform that Donald Bitzer, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, developed Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations (PLATO), the first computer platform designed solely for instructional purposes. According to Michael Szabo of the University of Alberta, “The primary function of PLATO was to provide a rich environment in which educators and trainers could create and deliver high quality interactive courseware to students in classrooms, homes, and offices with or without the presence of an instructor.” But that would come later. In its earliest incarnation, a single learner used a specially designed 16-button keyboard to navigate the system’s menus, which were displayed on a standard black and white television set.

An early version of PLATO, including the special keyboard

The development of the more user-friendly PLATO IV marked a significant milestone. It moved the system—and the very idea of online learning—from the rarefied world of the computer lab and into the hands of the layperson. In addition to boasting quality graphics and an infrared touch panel display, PLATO IV also allowed for the connection of peripheral devices. One such device was a synthesizer that provided sound for PLATO courseware. This augmentation is widely considered to be the first multimedia experience in computer-based training. In 1967, the invention of the TUTOR programming language allowed instructors to design their own lesson modules. The rigid structure of the TUTOR language established the e-learning design with which we are familiar today: information is presented and is followed by questions that must be answered correctly before the user can proceed to the next “unit”.

A screenshot from the science courseware, “A Model Planetarium”

In 1976, the company that owned PLATO began to market the system commercially. By the late 1980s, networked installations were connected in over one hundred cities around the globe, with thousands of hours of courseware readily available. Available lessons included Basic Skills for the Real World, Job Skills For the Real World, Math Expeditions, Reading Explorations, as well as a number of science courses.

Although the plug was pulled on PLATO in 2006, the system has been adapted for Windows and Macintosh, and can be downloaded for free from a number of websites.


Poor Peter Pennyman

November 17, 2011

Since I started working at the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB), I’ve had unfettered access to their sizable library. I wrote the following article for the company’s intranet, and have been asked to contribute additional articles about the history of the WSIB. Someone even suggested that I write a book about workers’ compensation in Ontario. Who knows?

Origins of the Workplace Safety Insurance Board

By the end of the nineteenth-century, the full power of the Industrial Revolution had forever changed the way that people lived and worked, while continuing advancements and innovations in shipping, road construction, and railways hinted at greater things to come.  City-based machine manufacturing substantially increased workers’ per capita income. According to the Toronto census of 1911, manufacturing was the single largest employer for the city’s residents. But the grim byproducts of such grand-scale efficiency were often overlooked. Working in crowded and unsafe factories resulted in horrific injuries and sometimes death.

The following passage from the April, 1, 1915 edition of MacLean’s magazine illustrates the dismal fate of the severely injured worker:

In the good-old-days when Peter Pennyman, head moulder of the local stove works had a leg and one arm pried off in the machinery the boys took up a collection. And Peter? Peter—he got better. He had no arm, no leg, but the bon dieu left him a stomach. So the end of the story was that P. Pennyman, injured moulder, sold bootlaces at the busiest corner of the main street for thirteen years and eleven days and when the time came to die was mourned by a wide circle of police.

Prior to the establishment of the Workman’s Compensation Act of Ontario, labourers injured on the job had few options when seeking redress. The existing Workmen’s Compensation for Injuries Act was heavily biased in favour of the employer.  Merely by accepting a job, and thereby “voluntarily assuming the risks of employment”, a worker essentially waived his right to any compensation.

In 1910, at the urging of the emerging organized labour movement, the government of Ontario appointed William Meredith to lead the first Royal Commission to examine existing compensation laws and to make recommendations based on his findings. After studying the various briefs and evidence presented at a series of public hearings, The Meredith Report was released in 1913. Based on the belief that any compassionate compensation law must provide for the worker, his family, and by extension society itself, Meredith presented five basic tenets, which would become known as The Meredith Principles: no-fault compensation; collective liability; security of payment; exclusive jurisdiction; and administration by independent boards.

Manufacturers, eager to preserve the status quo, presented a united front against Meredith’s “radical changes” to the existing Act. A fairly typical objection can be found in one of the briefs submitted to the Royal Commission:

There does not seem to be the slightest shadow of justice in paying these dependants of the injured workmen if the accident was caused through no negligence on my part.

Despite the resistance of industry, the progressive government of the day enacted a law called The Workmen’s Compensation Act of Ontario, which incorporated all of Meredith’s recommendations. The Act became effective January 1, 1915. In that year, more than 17,000 accidents were reported, with benefits amounting to nearly $900,000.00.

This early testimonial from an injured worker provides evidence as to why William Meredith is still held in such high regard:

Now that I am able to write a little, I desire to thank you for your promptness in sending my cheques. I miss my fingers very much but through the Compensation Act it has certainly helped me, as being a soldier for two years a little money now counts.

The Workmen’s Compensation Board building at 90 Harbour St., Toronto, 1953 (Courtesy WSIB Library)

Old Windsor Postcards

September 24, 2011

Here are a few old Windsor postcards that I picked up at the Aberfoyle Antique Market a couple of months back. I’ve been able to confirm that the Detroit/Windsor tunnel postcard was printed in 1949, so the others are likely of a similar vintage. The first three cards really don’t require any explanatory text, but even longtime Windsorites might need a little help with the fourth (and last) postcard.

This last postcard shows the grotto (a “cave-like shrine”) at St. Mary’s Academy. St. Mary’s was constructed between 1927 and 1929 and then blown to smithereens to make way for a new subdivision in 1977. A few friends and I were playing football on the side lawn of my house when we looked up to see it implode. It was like watching some bullies trip an old man. Kind of pathetic. An ignoble end to such a majestic place.

My mother was a student at St. Mary’s back in the ‘40s, and she would tell my brothers and I of her and her friends’ attempts to outwit the Sisters. There are some great photos and more background information about St. Mary’s at http://www.internationalmetropolis.com/?p=96.

The grotto postcard is also the only one of the bunch that has writing on the back:

Hi Mom,

We finally landed. I really like this place. Wouldn’t mind living here. This is the grotto at St. Mary’s Academy. It’s clearly haunted by angry spirits who see the grotto as a sort of portal back into this dimension. Kind of creepy, but no place is perfect!


Okay, I made up the part about the angry spirits.

Thanks for dropping by!


When Prophecy Fails

June 11, 2011

Cover of the 1964 Edition of “When Prophecy Fails”

Cognitive dissonance can be defined simply and with no loss of accuracy as the mind’s attempt to juggle and ultimately reconcile two or more conflicting ideas or beliefs. We experience cognitive dissonance on a daily basis: Yes, I will eat six doughnuts, but I will lose that weight when I begin jogging next week. But the mind is a restless and argumentative thing: Of course, it would be better to exercise some self-restraint and not eat the doughnuts, but I’m certain that I’m going to start jogging next week. Aren’t I? How many times have I broken that promise before? And so on and so forth until a decision is ultimately reached. But at what cost?

Some argue that cognitive dissonance plays the most important role in our psychological lives. Decisions are not always black and white, and we are in constant conflict between deciding what is best for us, versus what is best for our families, our communities, and the poor woman at the doughnut shop waiting for me to make up my mind. Our decisions generate new questions, new conflicts, and new feelings of guilt, denial, rationalization, and justification. Cognitive dissonance is not mental pathology; it simply attempts to describe how the healthy mind operates.

However, the phenomenon can prove devastating when taken to extremes. Dr. Lionel Festinger demonstrated perhaps the most dramatic case of the workings of cognitive dissonance in the realm of social psychology with the release of his book, “When Prophecy Fails” (1956). The book is both case study and riveting human drama.

In the early 1950s, a variety of people from all walks of life began to gravitate toward a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin. While experimenting with automatic writing, she had begun receiving messages from aliens in which they told her that the world would end in a cataclysmic flood on December 21, 1954. At that time, a UFO would arrive to save the true believers, who now spent most of their time in Mrs. Martin’s living room. Due to their increasingly close affiliation with the fledgling group, many lost their jobs, their spouses, their reputations, and everything they owned. With so much at stake, they now had little choice but to believe that “the spacemen” would come.

Upon hearing of the UFO group, Dr. Festinger planned an experiment in which he began to “plant” observers (his students) within the group. Each was to take copious notes, and it is these notes, including direct quotations from the group’s members, that make up the bulk of the book and provide an intimate glimpse into the thought processes of the group members.

Important dates came and went without the promised guidance of the aliens. Although a few members left the group, this only served to strengthen the beliefs of those who remained. As Festinger predicted, they developed something of a bunker mentality. They had simply invested too much of themselves in the belief that the UFO would come to rescue them. After the promised date of December 21 had come and gone without an appearance by the UFO, the group issued a startling press release:

News release issued by the group after the UFO failed to appear.

If you’re interested in the case beyond the barebones treatment I’ve given it here, you can of course find additional, more detailed synopses on the internet. But I highly recommend reading the book. The characters are real people, and the author’s approach to his “subjects” is non-judgemental, even sympathetic. New editions of the book were published in 2009 and 2011, and can be purchased for a very reasonable sum from the amazon.ca/amazon.com website.

Thanks for reading.


Me interviewing Ted Serios. (Photo: Dan Cremin)

Once upon a time, I believed that it might be possible for a man to imprint his thoughts onto Polaroid film using only the power of his mind. Oh, dear.

The following article was published in Skeptic magazine, in an issue that included an article by Richard Dawkins and a whole slew of pieces about artificial intelligence! We also completed the short (30 minutes) documentary film, and I hope to figure out a way to post that before too long.

Thanks for reading!



Going to Meet the Man With the Camera Brain

While I didn’t exactly soar effortlessly through my teens and twenties, seizing the day and welcoming every sunrise and whatnot, life still unravelled mysteriously and with a charming lack of purpose. And then, at thirty, I wandered into a spiritual wilderness. Where a certain spontaneity had once been a fun if sometimes fickle guide, gray reason now usurped my ideals, and I became mired in a state of solipsistic glumness that was like teenage sorrow without the redeeming passion. With mortality now an increasingly real if distant reality, many in similar straits turn to religion, raising a family, or other similar time-honoured sources of succour. That is, people grow up. But for some of us, there lingers a spark of hope that we have not been entirely abandoned by that more innocent, childish age. And so we enter into a race with that old devil Time — a frenzied determination to find something to believe in again before the clock runs out.

In the early 1960s, in Denver Colorado, psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud was wrestling similar demons. A firm believer in the untapped potential of the human mind, Eisenbud’s frequent forays into the paranormal had nevertheless produced nothing in the way of concrete results. As long as empirical evidence was lacking, he said, no amount of anecdotal evidence could ever budge the stubborn fact that parapsychology would forever remain “the stepchild of science.” Shortly after reaching this gloomy conclusion, he got wind of Ted Serios, an ex-bellhop from Chicago who claimed to possess the remarkable ability to imprint his thoughts onto Polaroid film using only the powers of his mind. The doctor and the psychic met one evening in room 1320-W at Chicago’s ritzy Palmer House hotel. Between double-orders of Scotch (“for my cold,” said Serios), the impish psychic clutched a Polaroid Land type 100 camera, pointed the lens directly into his own face, clicked the shutter and restored the doctor’s faith. Ted’s thoughts seemed to bleed miraculously onto the film. Photograph after photograph slowly came to uncanny life, rendering the impossible in black and white: the Chicago Water Tower, a hotel that had burned down years before, haunting suggestions of other unknown structures. Eisenbud emerged from the meeting convinced that Serios could somehow seize a fleeting thought and materialize it for all to see.

A Serios “thoughtograph”, circa 1966.

Another one from the same period. I still find this one haunting.

Now it was the late 1990s, and for my old friend Dennis and I, merely contemplating the existence of a character like Serios was a salve for our shared spiritual dread. A self-described bum whose humble goals consisted of drinking, womanizing, and (without forsaking the first two goals) obtaining the occasional psychic photograph, Serios was the embodiment of hedonistic surrender. And yet, whether through some fluke of fate or a strange sense of duty, he was also man enough to take on the very laws of nature. And as far as we knew, no one in the thirty-odd years since he first made his mark had anyone successfully debunked his claims. Was Ted Serios living proof that one could stagger through life, stumble on a great discovery, and find fame, all without losing one’s seat at the bar? Was Serios the guardian of a metaphysical miracle that would turn science on its head? With fingers crossed — and possibly while inebriated — we decided to contact Dr. Eisenbud.

“As far as your interviewing Ted, he’s never cared for interviews.” Jule Eisenbud’s ancient voice crackled over the line. He relinquished Ted’s phone number, but balked at surrendering his location. “He doesn’t want to be disclosed. He has a bad police record.” A new layer of intrigue arose. For a man on the lam, Ted was recklessly eager to jump back into the spotlight. In a series of lengthy, often rambling telephone conversations, he reassured us that his powers, dormant for nearly thirty years, could erupt again at any time. And he wanted us to bear witness. With an old Polaroid camera and as much film as we could afford, we hit the highway, determined to resurrect the reputation of the man whom science had so cruelly neglected.

In 1967, Eisenbud published the results of his extensive experiments with Serios in a book entitled The World of Ted Serios: ‘Thoughtographic’ Studies of an Extraordinary Mind. It is wonderfully written, full of humour, thoughtful analysis, and provocative ideas. It is also an unequivocal endorsement of Ted Serios’s wondrous thoughtographic brain. The book attracted legions of both believers and skeptics, and the little man who likely would have languished as an intriguing barfly and sodden supernatural footnote suddenly expanded his circle of influence beyond the local tavern. Soon, the world of Ted Serios counted scores of scientists, skeptics, and other respectable folk among its inhabitants. Thirty years later, that world was little more than a ghost town. Serios’s proponents had been driven underground. The skeptics had long since dismissed the phenomenon. Why?

In the beginning there was the gismo. Perhaps never before has such a fuss been made about something so crude and seemingly innocuous. Perhaps never before has humanity’s understanding of the natural world been challenged by a small roll of cardboard. Ted’s apartment, when we at last met him on a sizzling summer day in 1997, is littered with them. When obtaining a thoughtograph, Ted holds the gismo up to the camera lens to help him focus his psychic energy. I’d always thought of the gismo as a sort of bridge between the supernatural aether and the mundane reality of Ted’s gray matter, but the skeptics were never so broad-minded. They seized upon the gismo as evidence of legerdemain — a simple optical device that permitted any light-fingered charlatan to duplicate Ted’s “psychic photographs.” It was their smoking gun, the undeniable proof that Serios was nothing more than a very talented con artist who had either duped or been in cahoots with the good doctor. In their unyielding leeriness, they saw the gismo as a bridge between wild claims and harsh reality.

Ted turns out to be an amiable host. We’re all a bit awkward. Pleasantries are dutifully exchanged, and the meeting starts out like a visit to the psychic grandfather I never had. And then Ted spots our Polaroid camera. His affected smile transforms into a lusty grin. His eyes flash, and he begins stroking the camera. “This thing brings back a lot of memories,” he says wistfully.

Ted in action, 1967.

Back in Ted’s heyday — when, as he says longingly, “there was no shortage of booze, women, nothin’” — he made scores of converts by capturing thoughtographic representations of images that were tightly sealed from his sight: abstract paintings, famous buildings, historical figures. When Ted got one of these “targets,” another affidavit attesting to his authenticity was as good as signed. He’s happy to hear that we’ve brought along our own targets. “When I want to get a target, I make love to that camera,” he explains, his hands still exploring the old Polaroid. “That’s all there is to it. If I talk nice to the damn thing like I talk to a woman, the thing will give in, you see?” Where Eisenbud got downright esoteric in his analysis of Ted’s abilities, the thoughtographer himself clearly isn’t much for theorizing. Indeed, shortly into our interview, it becomes painfully obvious that peppering Ted with our carefully prepared questions — “How do you explain the slight variations between the target and the image that appear in some of your thoughtographs? Do you feel that you have finally gained the acceptance by the scientific community that you desired?” — isn’t going to get us anywhere. He stares blankly or deflects each question, spinning it into a tale of his bawdy youthful adventures.

Fair enough, I think. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Ted is something of a holy fool — remarkably gifted and simultaneously oblivious to the profound effects that his abilities will have on our understanding of ourselves and the world. We’re here as guests, not disinterested scientific observers, so it only makes sense that Ted should call the shots. After numerous attempts to capture our targets result only in blurry pictures of Ted’s grunting face, frozen in various unflattering expressions of mental exertion, the weary thoughtographer announces that he’ll need some beer to grease the psychic gears. “I work the best when we sorta make a party out of it,” he confesses. “Everybody is having a good time. Then it seems like it comes real easy. Otherwise, it’s a grind. It really is, and that’s all there is to it.” As I get up to head off to the liquor store, Ted jams the camera against the back of my head and takes a picture. This strikes me as a pretty crude way to photograph someone’s thoughts. It’s also irritating as hell. Dr. Eisenbud once told us, “I was actually fond of Ted, but at other times, believe me, I could have taken a swing at him or broken his neck. He was just a pain in the ass.” I understand.

Ted in action during our 1997 visit. (Photo: Dan Cremin)

With a beer in each hand and a fair amount flowing through his veins, Ted’s flagging determination is soon renewed. “I’m gonna get that damn target if it kills me,” he says, lighting up his tenth cigarette in as many minutes. He tries to read my mind, confidently announces that he’s picked up its contents, and draws a quick sketch. With a knowing chuckle, he shows me the scrap of paper on which are scribbled two stick figures and a box. It could represent anything, including my target picture, a photograph showing my friend and his wife walking down the aisle at their wedding. I’m impressed, but then Ted adds a third stick figure. He looks up from his work. “If I don’t get the target, the whole thing’s kaput. It’s a do or die thing,” he says dramatically. I feel uneasy. While I want to give Ted the benefit of the doubt here — he’s always professed to be a Catholic, and that third figure could be God, I think — I’m under the distinct impression that he’s been trying to read my facial expressions, not my thoughts. But Ted is no parlor room swindler. I think at the time that his abilities have been well-documented. He’s been subjected to batteries of tests, all of which have ruled out the possibility of fraud. Some of the brightest lights in academia have testified to his authenticity. And I myself am no sucker, I remind myself, though not without wincing.

At some point during the proceedings, a young woman of indeterminate age (though decades younger than our thoughtographer) wades through the sea of empty cans and seats herself next to Ted. He introduces “this broad” as Arlene, his girlfriend and “America’s next great country and western singer.” According to Ted, speaking now in a slurred though solemn voice, Arlene is also a Christian in good standing with the Lord. He slaps her butt and asks her to pray for him. Apparently heedless of any moral conflict in asking for God’s help in such an unholy enterprise, Arlene bows her head. Ted mumbles an oath to his earthier Lord and silently communes with two more beers. The deity intervenes, and soon Ted is churning out thoughtographs at a truly awe-inspiring rate. He produces more of them in the next hour than in the thirty years since he mysteriously lost his powers. Now that prayer — that most unscientific of variables — has entered the picture, I bid farewell to even the pretence of “controlled conditions.” Her entreaties to the Lord completed, Arlene uses her body to throw interference while Ted fiddles with the camera. For what seems like an eternity of awkwardness, we stare at Arlene’s back. Their barely audible murmuring is occasionally punctuated by Ted’s cursing. The distinctive whirr of the camera is never far behind, and Arlene dutifully hands us yet another thoughtograph.

With the help of beer, God, Arlene, and two increasingly inattentive witnesses, Ted’s thoughtographs are beginning to take on a definite form. “I think it’s Christ,” I say listlessly. Stifling a yawn, Dennis concurs. Our combined will to believe can no longer withstand such blatant chicanery. But the show must go on. The curtain won’t drop until the last beer is finished and Ted has either obtained our “goddamned targets” or forgotten that he’d promised to do so. As he lurches to his feet and launches into a tipsy version of “You Oughta Be In Pictures,” I open one of the few remaining beers and watch as Ted unwittingly lampoons my dark night of the soul. Before he descends into abject drunkenness, I ask him to reveal the secret of his remarkable gift. “You got to have an imagination,” he says. “And that is the gospel truth. If you don’t have an imagination, then you ain’t gonna see nothing!”

As we prepare to leave, Ted approaches us sheepishly, eyes downcast. He’d brushed off earlier attempts to discuss a particular dream that had plagued him for years — the dream of the giant camera — but now seems eager to get it off his chest. “It seemed like the damn thing was walking to me. I don’t know how to describe it. It waddled towards me like a human walking. It was one of those old-fashioned cameras. I’ll tell you one thing: it was as big as a house when it came at me. There’s times when I get scared of the damn thing. If that happened to you, wouldn’t you be scared a little bit?” It certainly seems like a confession — a heavy heart caused perhaps by a certain lightness of the fingers — but I’m in no position to grant absolution. I feel too much a party to the game.

For a couple of years after our meeting with Ted Serios, Dennis and I avoided talking about the incident. And if the subject did arise, we did our best to avoid eye contact. But now we can laugh about how two credulous friends believed they had discovered a psychic Messiah who might turn the natural world topsy-turvy, but who instead spent a day with a strange little man who, if he couldn’t exactly save our souls, could at least save us from the clockwork tedium of a world that never changed its routine.

Postscript: On March 10, 1999, Dr. Jule Eisenbud died at his home in Denver. Whatever secrets he held — or thought he held — passed away with him. During our last phone conversation with Eisenbud, in 1998, he told us, “Ted will outlive anything. He may last to the year 2500.” While speaking to Ted on the phone not long ago, he informed us that he had recently been struck by a car, but had made a complete recovery that baffled the doctors who had treated him. Ted Serios may yet defy the laws of nature.

The London Monster

April 23, 2011

How do you make a reputable documentary film about a lurid criminal episode from eighteenth-century England? It ain’t easy. The following is a proposal that I wrote for a film called, “The London Monster: Terror On the Streets In 1790”. Instead of focusing solely on the crimes, I fit them into a greater social and historical context. Someone liked it, because the film is now in pre-production. Full disclosure: the film has actually been in pre-production for about two years. In my defense, however, two years in film making time is equivalent to about two months for any regular project. It’s kind of like counting in dog years.


The London Monster Proposal

The essence of an era is often best evoked by examining its society’s lowest social strata. In many cases—such as Henry Mayhew’s journalistic “London Labour and the London Poor”, and the Ripper-era tabloids—the criminal proves to be the true protagonist of much of the social history that we know. Additionally, society’s treatment of the criminal often reflects the moral and political tenor of the times. Contemporary accounts of various scandals and iniquities paint a picture of certain periods that are fresh, untainted by the need for a historical intermediary. This kind of “criminal social history” can link us more intimately to the past.

Jan Bondeson’s book, “The London Monster: Terror On the Streets In 1790”, is a refreshing reminder that this type of history—especially as it concerns little-known historical episodes—is very much alive. Dr. Bondeson, author and Clinical Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Rheumatology at Cardiff University, spent five years gathering contemporary accounts, cartoons and caricatures, and a wealth of related ephemera to piece together one of the most shocking and absurd crimes ever to grace a sensationalist broadsheet.

“Lively and gripping… this medley of violence and the macabre will appeal to all general readers who cannot help being intrigued as well as disgusted by such grisly matters.”

~ from The Daily Telegraph’s review of “The London Monster”

Between the years 1788 and 1790, a serial sexual psychopath stalked the streets of London, striking fear into the hearts of society ladies (his chosen targets) and enraging the men who were powerless to stop him. During his reign of terror, the Monster cut the clothing and sliced the buttocks of fifty-eight women, all the while unleashing a torrent of profanity so offensive that many victims, upon repeating the Monster’s words verbatim on the witness stand, had to be revived with smelling salts.

“The newspapers are full of him; the playwrights entertain audiences with his exploits from the stage; the ladies are afraid of him; the mob gives every pedestrian a keen look in case he is the Monster; all the walls are covered with posters advertising a reward for the apprehension of the Monster; a fund has been opened to finance the hunt; Mrs. Smith, a society lady, has shot him with a pistol behind the ear; he disguises himself, goes about in various different guises, wounding beautiful women with specially invented instruments…”

From the diary of German naturalist Georg Forster, 12 May, 1790

St. James Street, a favourite haunt of the Monster.

While the Monster’s crimes are intrinsically foul, they were especially repugnant at a time in which the maintenance of a strict morality was essential to maintaining social order. The Monster proved a grave threat to civic harmony. The result of the attacks was what has been aptly dubbed a “moral panic”. With only a rudimentary police force in place, and a justice system that was still in its formative stages, numerous men took to the streets in a heroic attempt to apprehend the elusive villain. This outrage must end. Order must be restored. While this noble vigilante effort resulted in the arrests of numerous innocents, it ultimately turned up a probable culprit. Fingers were pointed at Rhynwick Williams, a hapless Welshman who worked at an artificial flower factory. Since the Monster often approached his victims with an ersatz nosegay concealing a hidden knife, the public was convinced that they had their man. Williams, with the bloodcurdling threats of the mob pounding in his ears, was dragged in irons to the courts of the Old Bailey.

A typical trial at Newgate Prison.

The first of Williams’s two trials resulted in a verdict of guilty. It was a farcical affair, as unreliable witnesses took the stand, conflicting testimonies revealed gross inconsistencies in the women’s stories, and Williams’s solid alibi, despite the independent attestation of seven witnesses, failed to impress. What was worse, Williams’s own barristers were not convinced of his innocence.

Williams withered in the infamous Newgate Prison, where he was at least safe from the lynch mobs who were still demanding their own cruel brand of justice. And there he likely would have languished as a historical footnote were it not for the sudden arrival of his unexpected champion, the passionate though comically inept Theophilus Swift. Swift, a poet and duelist, went on the attack, clearly convinced that the best defense is a good offense. His boisterous battle to prove his defendant’s innocence involved pamphleteering, assailing the integrity of his upper-class victims, and launching into theatrical tirades that convinced more than a few notable citizens of his client’s innocence.

“When the Bloodhound REVENGE snuffs his prey, and FALSEHOOD fastens on the Game which PREJUDICE has started, the Law becomes the snare of Innocence, and Justice is but a gin in the hands of the unlicensed Poacher!”

~ from Theophilus Swift’s summary trial remarks

 But facts—and there were many to support Williams’s innocence—proved no match for the public’s desire to convict a man at any cost. Williams was found guilty and returned to Newgate Prison, where he was to serve a six year sentence. Here, the London Monster received a more humble moniker: Prisoner No. 31.

The original design for Newgate Prison.

Dr. Jan Bondeson, who also serves as the film’s Consulting Producer, is our guide and narrator. He walks us through the story as he himself discovered it, sharing contemporary news accounts, illustrations, satirical cartoons, and a wealth of miscellaneous ephemera from his personal collection to detail the crimes and their aftermath, and to provide a clear picture of how tabloid justice both reflected and fuelled the moral climate of late eighteenth-century London. In an age teeming with now-infamous rogues and murderers, we learn why Rhynwick Williams was “the most hated man in London.”

As the tale unfolds, we visit the many extant (and historically intact) locations where the drama played out. From the taverns where the vigilantes plotted their next bumbling move, to the parks and shops of St. James’s Street—the scene of some of the more egregious attacks—our expert guide unveils key plot points in the very footsteps of his subjects.

Interviews with retired judges and experts in jurisprudence offer further insight into the times and crimes, and serve as a jumping off point for colourful re-enactments, dramatic voice-over readings from actual trial transcripts, animated sequences using caricatures and other artwork from the time, and more casual interviews with members of the London public. Against the backdrop of a charity ball, modern society ladies react to the Monster’s moral misconduct. With all the crime that London has borne witness to in the intervening years, could the Monster still shock the public? Would his presence lead to yet another “moral panic”? How would today’s more organized police force react? Knowledgeable senior constables as well as bobbies on the beat offer their unique take on the matter.

Period music will be selected based on its capacity to capture the tensions of the times, particularly as that tension relates to the harrowing life of Rhynwick Williams. Shoppers stroll along modern-day St. James’s Street to the strains of Maria Hester Park’s delicate allegros, while the more somber works of composers such as John Stanley provide a striking, more ominous counterpoint. Voice-acted recitations of contemporary doggerel verse both advance the plot and lend a more immediate historical authenticity to the story:

It is of a Monster I mean to write,

Who in stabing of Ladies took great delight;

If he caught them alone in the street after dark,

In their Hips, or their Thighs, he’d be sure cut a mark.

~ from “The Monster Represented”, 1790

From the time that Rhynwick Williams was first wrestled ignominiously to the ground, he has had his defenders in what we now call “the mainstream media”. Respectable newspapers published strongly-worded editorials calling for calm, and demanding that reason win out. In the nine years since Dr. Bondeson’s book was first published, he has uncovered a wealth of hitherto unknown information about the case and presents it here for the first time: late eighteenth-century newspaper accounts, magazine articles, letters, and poems, all of which may tip the scales of justice.

Rhynwick Williams

The late eighteenth-century was an age teetering on the verge of modernity. It has been handed down to us as a burlesque. “The London Monster” does not argue that this is an unfair appraisal. The cast of characters alone proves the stereotype. The film does, however, provide a unique perspective on Georgian London by viewing it through the eyes of the film’s uniquely preposterous anti-hero. Whether guilty or innocent, there can be little doubt that Rhynwick Williams was a character deserving of some sympathy. From the gloomy predictability of life as a penniless pauper, he was dispatched by Fate into a world that he could not comprehend. He was in over his head to a tragic degree, perhaps through no fault of his own. And that is a theme that never grows old.

A grim Punch and Judy scene

If you read my previous entry about M.R. James, you’ll know that his fascination with the ghost story began as a result of seeing a particularly disturbing Punch and Judy puppet set as a child.

Punch and Judy give me the creeps, too. More so even than clowns. The characters are nasty, even grotesque, and the narratives are frequently violent. Here is a brief description from Wikipedia: “In the British Punch and Judy show, he is a hunchback whose hooked nose almost meets his curved, jutting chin. He carries a stick as large as himself, which he freely uses upon most of the other characters in the show. He speaks in a distinctive squawking voice… “ A typical show is usually described as “anarchic”. “The tale of Punch and Judy… typically involves Punch behaving outrageously, struggling with his wife Judy and the Baby, and then triumphing in a series of encounters with the forces of law and order (and often the supernatural), interspersed with jokes and songs.”

With that in mind, here is James’s quote, from his later short story, “A Disappearance and an Appearance”. I’ll return to these unnerving caricatures when I discuss the documentary film that I’m currently working on.

It [the dream] began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether in doors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light…

I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face—it was yellowish white, I may remark—peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch… But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the foot-board and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same. But in the meantime the scene behind Punch was clearing, and showed, not the usual house front, but something more ambitious—a grove of trees and the gentle slope of a hill, with a very natural—in fact, I should say a real—moon shining on it. Over this there rose slowly an object which I soon perceived to be a human figure with something peculiar about the head—what, I was unable at first to see. It did not stand on its feet, but began creeping or dragging itself across the middle distance towards Punch, who still sat back to it; and by this time, I may remark (though it did not occur to me at the moment) that all pretence of this being a puppet show had vanished. Punch was still Punch, it is true, but, like the others, was in some sense a live creature, and both moved themselves at their own will.

When I next glanced at him he was sitting in malignant reflection; but in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near. Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with a whitish bag.

The chase which now began lasted I do not know how long, now among the trees, now along the slope of the field, sometimes both figures disappearing wholly for a few seconds, and only some uncertain sounds letting one know that they were still afoot. At length there came a moment when Punch, evidently exhausted, staggered in from the left and threw himself down among the trees. His pursuer was not long after him, and came looking uncertainly from side to side. Then, catching sight of the figure on the ground, he too threw himself down—his back was turned to the audience—with a swift motion twitched the covering from his head, and thrust his face into that of Punch. Everything on the instant grew dark.”

Thanks for reading!


(this is a slightly altered version of an article that didn’t quite see print)

I really must tell you about Montague Rhodes (M.R.) James. James—born 1862; died 1936—remains unchallenged as the “Father of the Modern Ghost Story.” Not only did he single-handedly revive the moribund ghost story genre, he also laid the groundwork for what we recognize today as the modern horror story.

James wrote his tales during a period in which ghost stories had devolved into thinly veiled Victorian morality tales packaged in a supernatural wrapper. The ghosts of these stories are generally benign, and the stories themselves are crafted to generate sentimental wonder and yearning rather than fear. In his very first collection, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” (1904), James banished this sanitized spirit, placing in its ethereal stead a ghost of immediate and palpable danger. Boldly dismissing the conventions of his day, James restored the well-worn genre tale to its visceral roots. “The ghost should be malevolent or odious,” he said. “Amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.”

In “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”, the first story in James’s landmark collection, a lone English tourist visiting a crumbling French cathedral purchases a strange book comprised of odd accounts and images plundered from numerous volumes in the cathedral’s library. For James, whose life was one long love affair with mediaeval manuscripts, this alone must have constituted an outrage. Dennistoun, a fairly typical Jamesian protagonist, pores lustily over his unique find, curiosity blinding him to the nightmare into which he is haplessly falling. The exact nature of the horror is withheld until Dennistoun encounters the vengeful form of Canon Alberic himself. The spectre’s appearance is sudden, unannounced, and very real. As H.P. Lovecraft correctly noted, “The average James ghost is usually touched before it is seen.”

Pacing was another of the keys to James’s success, and his narrative trajectory has been well-travelled—whether consciously or not—by nearly every horror writer since. “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are,” he wrote, “the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

Most of the eight stories that comprise “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” were originally presented by James as a series of annual readings for his Cambridge friends and colleagues. But what he called his “Christmas amusements” so enthralled the members of the Chitchat Club (as they called themselves) that his small but loyal following was soon pressing him to publish his ghost stories in book form. He reluctantly acceded, unaware that his diversions would prove to secure his immortality, outliving even his great contributions to myriad antiquarian disciplines. The first small print run of “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” sold out quickly, and the book has never since been out of print. It is widely considered to be the most-read collection of twentieth-century ghost stories.

Many have wondered how the gentle Cambridge don—a staunch Anglican who was by all accounts affable and highly extroverted—could exhume such nastiness from his own kind heart. James was, after all, a decidedly stable and good-natured man. He feared spiders and loved cats; he was a man who liked jigsaw puzzles, detective novels, and playing solitaire. He helped friends in need.

Although numerous theories have been set forth (some of the more obscure ones take a psychoanalytic approach), James himself provided the most likely answer in a 1931 interview: “What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard. One of these was The Ghost. It was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage. Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.”

Let James permeate your dreams. Order the book or read an e-text of the collection at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8486.

(As a sort of appendix, I found a chilling description of just such a dream as James likely experienced. The passage is from his story, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”, which appeared in his collection, “A Thin Ghost and Others”. I may include it in my next entry, as I think I’ve said enough for now…)

Thanks for reading.